If we look at the public face of Christianity in New Zealand we find a curious mix of traditional Christianity, orthodox sectarianism, evangelical and new life Churches at one end of the spectrum with those groups representing a smaller more intellectual progressive or liberal Christianity at the other. The fastest growing sectors still appear to have a vigorous conservative cultural component and in general terms, a more traditional theology.
New Zealand, with a rapidly changing immigrant sector to its population, is not nearly as uniform as would be the case in many countries where the dominant culture also carries with it an historical faith history. For example many of the Pacific Islands, much of South America, many of the Colonial groups in Africa, Southern Asia and the orthodox versions of Christianity of Russia, Eastern Europe, Greece and Italy still have a recognised majority following one of the traditional and hierarchical forms of Christianity. Even in the nations with a more pronounced Western culture like that of the US, England and Australia, the biggest single groupings of those calling themselves Christian tend to cluster around traditional teachings and religious custom.
For many in the population the patterns of worship for conservative Christians may vary but there are some relatively common features which clearly appeal to the worshippers.
First there is the attraction and comfort of familiar phrases, music and actions.
Next there is often a clearly discernible set of social norms. Leaders are given authority and respect according to custom and some denominations and sects go to extreme lengths to reinforce this hierarchy of behaviour. For example Pacific Island Churches typically organise communal functions at which seating, gift giving and order of speaking underlines these conventions. The high Anglican church services, and Roman Catholic masses see the worship leaders dressed and titled to reflect position in the Church, and the worshippers follow set liturgy and behave according to custom. The “protestant hunch” to assume an appropriate attitude for valid prayer may look very different to the standing hand-waving rapturous and sometimes incoherent chorus accompanying Pentecostal public prayer and praise – yet it may fulfil many of the same needs for belonging.
The theology of Conservative Christianity may not bear too close a scrutiny with its formulae beliefs about Jesus including His fully human yet fully divine status, virgin birth, death, bodily resurrection and nature defying miracles, yet assent to these beliefs reinforce the Church members’ secure places within the group. A number of conservative Christians have for example told me that to reject the authority of their view of God and the scriptures would be to reject the only valid basis for choosing between good and evil, and I have come across ex members of some more conservative churches who have been thrown out of both Church and family for questioning such issues as the authority of the Bible, creationism or the status of homosexuals.
The Nature of Traditional God The God of Traditional Christianity is probably best considered as an Old Testament God. This includes the characteristics of being a sort of super male father king, a creator, master, law giver and judge enforcer. God of tradition is often discussed as having human-like characteristics having created humans with a pre-eminent position on Earth and sitting in judgement over the human kind, who as a result of the events surrounding creation, are born into a state of sin. Although it is not often spelt out there is also an implicit notion that God is “up there” with religion organised in such a way as to provide a means of moving from the sinful state to a situation in which we are somehow forgiven and brought into a state of eventual happiness. These images proscribed for centuries in Holy writings and accepted without question via a strongly hierarchical church leadership may now be under threat but that is not to say they were inappropriate for their age.
In a pre global village age where little was known in certainty about the nature of the Earth and the Universe, where disease was feared but misunderstood in cause, and in a time in which there was so little meaningful public education, conservation, tradition and belief were essential to define the community on which individuals depended for survival. In such a setting traditional views of God had no reason to change. Indeed, the preservation of the cultural aspects of religion require unquestioning acceptance, and without the means to test and exploit empirical knowledge about the natural world it would have been seen as dangerous to go against received wisdom
This image of a traditional God may be criticised today in that it takes little account of the findings of modern scholarship. Certainly as we learn about pre-human life forms, the comparatively brief time in which the human race has been on an ancient Earth and the tiny place our planet occupies in a vast universe among millions upon millions of galaxies, it is hard to retain our belief that humanity and a human like God represent all that matters of significance.
The declining Church attendance, particularly in places where education and science are accorded higher status suggests why fewer young people stay in the traditional churches is in part because of issues of they see relating to relevance and credibility. The young educated today are far less likely to accept knowledge untested by empirical knowledge and more unwilling to accept the unquestioned word of those in hierarchical authority. It is hardly surprising the modern world citizens facing new moral issues relating to genetic engineering, super weapons, euthanasia, birth control, environmental change and trade imbalances, find conservative Bible principles increasingly less relevant.
It is an open question whether in time the religion developing at the other end of the spectrum, the so called progressive Christianity, will win over to its ranks the emerging modern generations.
Two quotes from the affirmation of faith designed to summarise the beliefs of the Australian sector of this Church movement, the Canberra Affirmation (2008), give a reasonable summary and point to the likely strengths and weaknesses of such a movement.
The first refers to the set of beliefs about Christ.
“We honour the one called Jesus, a first century Galilean Jewish sage, nurtured by his religious tradition. A visionary and wisdom teacher, he invited others through distinctive oral sayings and parables about integrity, justice, and inclusiveness, and an open table fellowship, to adopt and trust a re-imagined vision of the ‘sacred’, of one’s neighbour, of life. As we too share in this vision, we affirm the significance of his life and teachings, while claiming to be ‘followers of Jesus.’”(The Canberra Affirmation
Notice in this there is no mention of Christ’s divinity, virgin birth, miracles or resurrection. By using what they see is the best historical scholarship the progressive Christians claim that we know too little to be sure of any of the supernatural claims for Jesus and say that in any case we can dissociate Jesus’ beliefs and teachings from the more debatable and less believable claims.
Similarly for the Bible itself, gone are the claims for a divinely inspired inerrant document dictated from on high.
“We receive the Hebrew and Christian scriptures known as the Bible, as a collection of human documents rich in historical memory and religious interpretation, which describe attempts to address and respond to the ‘sacred’. It forms an indispensable part of our tradition and personal journeys. We claim the right and responsibility to question and interpret its texts, empowered by critical biblical scholarship as well as from our own life experiences. We accept that other sources – stories, poems and songs – imaginative pictures of human life both modern and ancient, can nurture us and others, in a celebration of the ‘sacred’ in life.”(The Canberra Affirmation)
The current document most quoted by the Progressive Christians is Karen Armstrong’s Charter of Compassion which nicely reflects the Progressives’ intention of:
“a transformative path of inclusion and integrity involves living responsible and compassionate lives in community with others.” (The Canberra Affirmation)
Such a paradigm shift is unlikely to be welcomed by much of the Church. The modern mega Churches might risk the status of their leadership and would also in effect require acknowledgement of a previous misdirection of path. For the mainstream churches, many of their modern church scholars already say they are comfortable with the progressive Christianity claims, yet even there it may take something of a theological earthquake before the churches as a whole can shake free from their conservative traditions and affirmations.